You would’ve thought it was the Fourth of July the way fireworks were flying at a meeting held at the Main Library last Tuesday evening.

The controversy surrounded a modification to the Saint John’s Health Center’s 1998 development agreement (DA) with City Hall. Saint John’s has delayed building a required 442 space, on-site subterranean parking garage and filed an “Application to Amend” the DA in 2007 asking only to postpone its construction for 10 years.

At the meeting, Saint John’s proposed a badly flawed plan for shared parking and transportation management as a substitute for the underground parking facility. Saint John’s attorney Chris Harding contends that the health center has no obligation to build the parking garage. City Hall vigorously disagrees.

Planning staff disclosed that Saint John’s wants to use 535 off-site parking spaces as the alternative to an on-site garage. At least 450 parking spaces are already leased at the Yahoo! Center a block away and another 85 spaces are at St. Anne’s Catholic Church more than two blocks away.

Neighbors were livid. They’re skeptical that parking spots blocks away will be utilized.

Lack of parking space, especially affordable parking around the hospital, is the latest in a litany of problems. Residents complain that health center employees, medical staff and visitors alike monopolize already scarce street parking to avoid high garage fees and $12 visitor valet parking.

Saint John’s visitor handouts highlight two hour metered space on Arizona Avenue and 23rd Street, which is constantly occupied by “the same vehicles day after day with handicapped placards,” one neighbor disclosed.

Neighbors agree that Saint John’s reneged on its promises to build on-site parking. What’s more, Saint John’s 10-year lease at the Yahoo! Center constitutes a violation of the Yahoo! Center’s own DA with City Hall. What if the lease is amended or canceled by Yahoo?

Attorney Stanley Epstein asked Harding whether the negotiations with City Hall over the last four years exceeded the scope of the “Application to Amend” and were therefore illegal. Harding failed to answer. If they are illegal, all negotiations are null and void and it’s back to the starting line, says Epstein. And Saint John’s is in default for not building the garage.

Saint John’s is one of the nation’s premier medical facilities and Santa Monica’s fifth largest employer, according to the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. Many in the community claim hospital administrators think they’re above neighbor complaints and keeping promises on matters such as providing adequate parking.

I say it’s bad marketing to force patients and visitors alike to endure inadequate, distant and expensive parking. It’s poor public relations to thumb your nose at the community by letting them think, “We can do what we want. We’re Saint John’s.” And, it’s just bad business to offend and anger the core market for its excellent medical services.

The matter will soon go the Planning Commission and then, City Council. The big political question is whether they will protect residents’ interests and send a message to all developers that once DAs are approved, conditions such as providing adequate parking and other public benefits aren’t going to be rescinded or ignored just because the developer doesn’t want to spend the money or thinks its project is so important as to supercede the law and neighborhood quality of life.

Or, will they grant Saint John’s request, set a scary new precedent for development in Santa Monica and abandon their duty to protect our neighborhoods.

Will new Pico library be like Saddam’s palace?

Because I was observing the fireworks at the Main Library, I missed the public unveiling of design plans for the proposed Pico Branch Library in Virginia Park.

I’ve been informed by attendees that there was no discussion about the project’s costs, which appear to be excessive. “They were mostly talking about the landscaping and how the building will relate to the park and the neighborhood,” one attendee e-mailed, also noting, “Estimates for 22,000 square foot libraries in Pasadena, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and Palo Alto … are all in the $3 million to $4.5 million range.”

The proposed Pico library is 8,300 square feet with a projected cost of $11.5 million. Repeated requests for an explanation of costs in this column have been ignored by City Hall and its well-connected architectural firm. Maybe it’s the gold-plated urinals, marble floors and crystal chandeliers that are driving up the price.

This all reeks of a brush-off. Whether it be ignoring DA requirements as in the case of Saint John’s or thinking the public doesn’t need to know how our money is being spent.

Did I forget to mention that the architectural firm of Koning-Eisenberg was hired to design the library? Did you know that K-E principal Hank Koning is on the Planning Commission? Architect’s fees are usually 7 to 10 percent of the construction costs.

Is anybody looking out for the taxpayer? Apparently not.

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com

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